Transport U: Colleges Save Millions By Embracing Policies to Reduce Driving

Jeffrey Tumlin was managing transportation programs at Stanford in the mid-1990s, when he made an important finding: It was cheaper for the university to pay people not to drive than to build new parking structures.

Offering employees just $90 a year not to drive to campus was enough to entice many of them to use transit, carpools, or bicycles. Meanwhile, the annualized cost of each parking space can range from about $650 for surface spots in suburban locations to over $4,000 for structured spaces in cities, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute [PDF].

Biking means big savings at Stanford. Image: ##

Stanford offered further incentive by raising parking prices 15 percent. Then, it invested $4 million in bicycle facilities, including turning a main road through campus into a bike and transit mall. This $4 million enticed 900 people out of their cars and onto bicycles, according to a case study in Transportation & Sustainable Campus Communities, by Will Toor and Spenser Havlick. Building parking facilities to accommodate those 900 people would have cost $18 million.

What Stanford had discovered was “transportation demand management,” or strategies to minimize transportation costs by reducing driving. Today almost every college and university in the country employs some form of TDM, whether it’s providing discounted transit passes for students or offering special parking rates to carpoolers.

Colleges and universities — by nature of their fixed locations and limited resources — are excellent laboratories for transportation innovation, says Tumlin, who now works for the firm Nelson\Nygaard.

“Even the well-funded institutions have to make a choice about putting money into parking or putting money in a classroom,” said Tumlin.

Many schools are now well ahead of even the most progressive cities and state DOTs when it comes to saving money and improving public health by reducing car trips.

There are many strategies available to universities seeking to promote options other than solo car commuting. Places like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Colorado-Boulder — campus TDM leaders that Streetsblog will be profiling in a series of upcoming posts — are employing a host of tools, including:

  • offering free transit passes to faculty
  • running free campus shuttles
  • strategically adjusting parking prices
  • offering car-sharing services
  • providing vanpool subsidies
  • offering parking discounts and better locations to carpoolers
  • promoting bicycling
  • promoting telecommuting

In Stanford’s case, a combination of these programs allowed the school to increase its campus size 20 percent without increasing traffic — a stipulation that Santa Clara County insisted on. Since the early 2000s, single-occupancy car commuting among Stanford employees and students has held roughly steady, despite the university’s rapid growth. “We would probably have had to build another 3,000 parking spaces on campus,” reports Brodie Hamilton, director of parking and transportation services. “Stanford, most of its parking structures right now are going underground. Those cost about $45,000 per space to put them underground. We’ve probably saved close to $100 million in costs avoided.”

It costs MIT roughly $100,000 to add a parking space, according to university officials. Image: ##

Places like Stanford and MIT — elite colleges in expensive housing markets — have been leading the way on TDM, motivated in large part by financial necessity, says Tumlin. High land costs and the lack of undeveloped land nearby make reserving large parts of campus for car storage cost-prohibitive.

Larry Brutti, operations manager at MIT’s Parking and Operations Office, said adding a single parking space on MIT’s campus costs the university about $100,000. The institution is focused, instead, on promoting biking and transit for its faculty and staff.

In addition to the high cost, at a land-constrained campus, preserving space for parking means less space to advance learning, like additional research and instruction facilities.

Right now, as schools struggle with declining public funding, more colleges and universities than ever are embracing the cost-saving approach of TDM. The times simply demand innovation, says Tumlin.

“Particularly now that resources are scarcer, it’s forcing universities to sharpen their pencils,” he said. “The evidence is so overwhelming that it doesn’t make sense to just throw capital money at our problems to make them go away.”

What separates colleges that succeed at reducing costs from those that continue to throw away money on parking? One important factor, says Tumlin, is simply the presence of someone on staff with the technical expertise to rigorously compare investing in capital — like parking garages — with investing in programs — like variable parking rates.

Streetsblog will be looking at three schools that have had enormous success managing transportation demand: MIT, Stanford, and University of Colorado-Boulder, to distill the lessons they offer for other universities, as well as cities and states.


Transport U: Stanford Turns Green Commuting into Greenbacks

Transport U: Mode Shift at MIT

Transport U: CU-Boulder Catches the Bus to Savings

42 thoughts on Transport U: Colleges Save Millions By Embracing Policies to Reduce Driving

  1. The University of New Hampshire (among other things) advises incoming students and their parents of the on-campus station stop at Durham for Amtrak’s “Downeaster” as a way to influence reducing the use of cars and the need for parking. They also use that as part of their student recruitment.

  2. Stanford has been a very bicycle-friendly campus since (at least) the 70’s. It helps that bicycle theft is nearly non-existent on their campus!

  3. Thank you for the interesting article. I wonder why UCSF appears to be so pro-parking garages as they continue to develop their Mission Bay campus in “transit-first” San Francisco. Maybe their fiscal resources to fund parking aren’t that scarce? It’s especially odd since isn’t the state of California in the forefront of state-based attempts to stem sprawl and global warming and lessen our carbon footprint? Building parking garages exacerbates our environmental problems.

  4. a lot of those garages are FREE for employees too! My friend works at UCSC (not sure which campus) and he drives cuz it’s free to park. Paging Dr. Shoup.

  5. My mother had her bike stolen on the Stanford campus. It was done by professionals; they came with a flatbed truck dressed in construction uniforms, loaded entire bike racks, bicycles and all, and drove off. Only afterwards did anyone realize what had happened.

  6. What’s impressive about Stanford not building all that parking is that they have a huge campus with much more space to build than most college campuses. The fact that they charge a steep premium for parking does indeed encourage alternatives. If only the rest of Silicon Valley employers had the guts to do what Stanford does.

  7. Right, well, maybe those employers would if Santa Clara County weren’t such a picture of hypocrisy in putting the screws on Stanford to keep its freeway-like roads (which last I checked, still have no protected bike lanes) flowing and applying pressure nowhere else, much less fixing their embarrassing public-transit system.

  8. I am a UCSF employee and the garages and surface lots at all the UCSF sites in San Francisco are definitely NOT free. Maybe professors get parking comped to them but a lowly staff person like me has to pay for a permit.

  9. At $100,000 per parking space, it would be cheaper for colleges to build single room occupancy dorm rooms, and rent them out for the same rate as a parking spot. They could pocket the savings, and invest them in better education.

  10. Interesting, I went to UCSC and there was a similar tiered structure where parking was linked to prestige and staff. He’s a postdoc for a lab so I guess he’s somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, but his parking is definitely free, that’s why he drives.

  11. I just checked with a grad student and postdoc in my lab here at Mission Bay and they said parking is not free for them, even if they live in housing on campus. I wish I could get a deal like your friend 🙂

  12. Maybe he’s been lying this whole time and just loves driving 🙂 Perhaps it depends on the building? There certainly seems to be excess parking planned into new construction and the lots I see are always about half full.

  13. Half full — really? The surface lot at 4th & 16th Sts. fills up before 9am and the adjacent garage is parked up to the roof everyday. The lot by the new hospital is for the construction workers and the structure there isn’t open yet — when the hospital opens in 2015 there probably won’t be enough parking, especially since this area has really lousy public transportation options. The T-Line? no thank you I’ll pay for my parking permit 🙂

  14. Stanford also doesn’t allow freshmen to have cars on campus. (They should expand this to upper classmen. All residential colleges should do this.) They have zipcars on campus, a great bike shop, and bicycling on campus is a dream.

    Stanford has done a lot reduce use car use but could do more. For instance, it doesn’t publicize or encourage non-car transportation by alumni and visitors nearly enough. (Caltrain literally stops at the foot of the Stanford campus and on football game days it stops a ten minute walk from the football stadium. But still everyone drives.) Stanford backs off its excellent weekday shuttle schedule on weekends and holidays, making it very hard for students to rely on it, which induces them to drive on weekends/holidays. And Stanford doesn’t tell its new students to never ever buy a Walmart bike because it will break by February. This is unkind. Students from non-bike cultures go the Walmart route and are then very sorry come February because a bike at Stanford is pretty much a necessity.

    And Palo Alto could be a heck of a lot more bike friendly. The place is flat; the distances short; the weather nearly perfect. I don’t know why anyone drives there at all, but the place is choked with cars and offers woefully few bike lanes. However, the new bike underpass at Homer and Alma is pretty darn great.

  15. Great article. Campuses often exert tremendous influence on the local city or town, for better or worse. When they choose to use that influence to improve the health of local citizens and the many workers they employ by promoting biking and walking, everyone wins.

  16. Portland State University (PSU) is another university that has done a fantastic job at getting people out of their cars. Within a ten year span the portion of professors driving solo to campus dropped from 49% to 25% (graph here:

    PSU literally avoided the need to build a new parking deck through monumental encouragement programs for students and faculty to bike and take transit.

  17. UC Davis by far and away sets the gold-standard for college TDM, yet not a single mention in the article?

  18. I bike by the surface lot at 16th street and harrison a lot and it never ever seems full. I guess I’m going by in the afternoon/evening/weekends but that just shows what a waste of space surface parking is since it’s only fully used from 9-6. When I had to go to mission bay for some testing I just remember how hard and uncomfortable to bike it was, but the parking was relatively hidden.

  19. If you’re looking for other campuses, you might consider UC San Diego, which has already implemented many of the techniques listed. UCSD also just completed a bicycle and pedestrian master plan that highlights methods to further decrease dependence on gettting to and around campus by motor vehicle.

  20. There are certainly universities that make car use less attractive, but consider that Stanford is not a city campus. It’s a suburban campus with acres and acres of land–8,180 acres to be exact. They call it “The Farm” for a reason. In contrast, urban universities are typically under 200 acres so they have a much greater incentive to put the brakes on driving.

  21. I believe there were plans to turn the 16th and Harrison lot into a park but I’m not sure of the status

  22. UW-Milwaukee isn’t as bad as some schools I’ve seen, but for an urban campus it’s pretty bad. In fact they recently bought a hospital adjacent to the university and are converting it to other uses (offices, classrooms, daycare, health center, etc). But the parking garage turned into *free* student parking. Of course, the thing was full every day before 8am with lines of cars extending into the street. Never spoke about it in any of 6 urban planning classes I took. Perfect example of induced demand… my roommate used to drive 10 blocks to school.
    Every student had bus passes, included in tuition. The streets intersecting campus should ban private cars. Too much foot traffic going between all the buildings. Just not a great example.

  23. Forgot to add: There was also one of the student organizations (student senate or something… nobody really cared) that campaigned solely on getting the city to eliminate the parking hourly limits on the residential streets around the campus. That was their whole platform: “We’ll make parking easier.” Ridiculous given the location the campus is in.

  24. ANGIE: Do an article on Davis! Davis is most impressive in my opinion because, in general, land in the central valley is very cheap compared to land in a place like Palo Alto, yet cycling still has a priority in local funding.

  25. But once you leave the campus, its terrible! The sidewalk ends quickly, bike lines are in short supply. I remember almost getting killed trying to cross an overpass that had no sidewalk.

  26. Well-put. I think when downtown Palo Alto became a restaurant/cafe scene in the late 1990’s during the first dotcom boom, local residents put pressure on city to put in more garages to relieve neighborhoods that were complaining about traffic and people parking on their streets. Now Palo Alto has plentiful parking, so visitors are encouraged to drive.

  27. Students shouldn’t be foreced to align politically with the campus management. Especially when there is resentment they are paying top-dollar tuition and not even given a decent parking spot.

  28. I really wish Stanford could be better about this – but with the history of having such a huge campus that they’re not allowed to use, it’s really forced into car-dependency. If they had the whole thing to redo, they could have developed the area right near the train station, instead of focusing development on the center of campus and having Palm Drive stretch for such a long distance. And of course, if they could have made Palo Alto a less car-oriented place, that would have been a big plus too.

  29. How many upper class students take internships? When I was an undergrad there (’98-’02), I recall very few friends working off-campus. I suppose they’re even more engineering-focused now than they were then though, so it’s possible things have changed.

  30. Why can’t they use the whole campus? What is stopping them from developing near the train stations?

  31. I like that neighborhood residents complained about having cars park on the streets – public space intended just for that purpose – and the solution wasn’t to charge higher prices for on-street parking, add transit options, etc to relieve overall congestion. The fix was parking garages taking up land opportunity costs. Great.

  32. I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI and the University of Michigan had free shuttle bus service running on a frequent basis all around the campuses and between them. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority had good bus schedules operating on an easy memory and frequency, too. Parking has always been a pain in Ann Arbor and still is today. I hate paying for parking and getting tickets for more than the cost of a bus pass. I still use the bus as my primary means of getting around Ann Arbor whenever I vist, and most lines are within reasonable walking distance.

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  34. Its a really good thing what they are doing here. Instead of pushing costs up on infrastructure, they worked on managing the demand for the infrastructure is a much smarter bid.

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